Buddhist teachings keep me guessing. Depending on the teacher and the topic, I am reassured or doubtful, suspicious or yielding, intrigued or cross-eyed. Often things just make sense, ring true to me, familiar, like the life I’ve been living for decades. Sometimes I wonder if I’m missing something. Do I only think I understand, have been observing these same things in my life and in the world around me all these years? I’m not sure what makes me doubt myself, but doubt arises. And I’m not sure what inclines me to always calibrate. Is this something I already know? Do I only think I know it? Maybe it’s an old fear, not being enough. Maybe it’s only hubris. Or maybe it’s tied to the way I bristle over sentences that begin with, “Those of us who’ve been practicing for years—” The speaker means a formal sitting practice. But what if we’ve been practicing “off the cushion” all this time? I love sitting practice. I suspect it accelerates things. And it feels like a luxury, all that stillness, all that not doing. Of late I tend to divide my time between the “long breathing in, long breathing out” I’ve been learning and my metta practice. Since I decided to offer the writers retreat this summer in Joshua Tree, I have to bring myself back more than usual, my mind and heart busy dreaming up ideas. I’ve begun sitting with my eyes open more and more. I think I may be giving myself more permission to do what feels right to me, become less concerned with following the rules. But there’s still a part of me who wants to “do it right,” a part of me who wants to know if I’m delusional about the things I think I know. The other day people were talking about feeling one with the mountain. That seems easy and natural to me. But on the surface, I don’t buy the “no self” spiel. Because there is a me. There is my portion of spirit housed in this body. Unique in place and time. Never again will the two be joined, this same form and spirit. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling one with the mountain or the moon or the desert rat dying in my courtyard on a summer afternoon. Or with the ant I stepped on yesterday because I must have hurt him when I was sweeping the courtyard. I put my sandal down on him, my chest aching, to end his tortured movements. I may not buy the “no self” deal, but I do know we’re all one, the mountain and the moon and the rat and the ant—and me.
I’ve been eating meat again. And drinking coffee, too, though not every day. I am more buoyant, more outgoing, with the caffeine. But I don’t think it’s good for my heart, and I don’t know how to “right” myself, how to become thrivingly healthy so I don’t need the difference that boost makes. And I don’t want to be eating animals, or eating dairy from unhappy animals, not just for my pleasure–but I’m not stopping yet. I can’t even really speak to why I’m doing it. Is it a way to recover from disturbance? Or an instinctive try for balancing my body chemistry? This morning I ate breakfast sausage wrapped in squishy Oatnut bread, a flashback from my twenties. Last night I ate Cheetos for the first time in years. This afternoon, I have a small bag of Doritos waiting on the table beside me, but for now I’m sitting on the couch, holding a piece of labradorite in my left hand and gazing at my mountains. Liz, the woman I met on my last Amtrak journey, gave me this stone. She found it and cut it and polished it by hand. I rub my thumb across the polished face of the stone, and I think, oh, I’d really like to write a blog post today. It’s getting close to the end of my blogging year, and I still have two more weeks that need an “extra” post in order to reach 58 posts while I am 58. As soon as I think the thought, the birds scatter in my courtyard. I hear a dove bump against the trailer in the panicked exit, and I cringe. I lean forward, scanning the courtyard through the screen door, looking for the hawk. She’s perched on the wooden fence, but hops down and explores the yard. She’s gorgeous and regal and oh so alert. I never want to see her eating one of “my” birds, but I still always wish her a full belly when I see her. It’s hard to be a wild one in this world.
Because the hawk came when I thought about writing a blog post, I pull my laptop to me when she flies away. But what do I write? Who wants to hear how I am eating animals even though I don’t want to be? I wrote once to one of my favorite columnists, Chris Erskine, at the Los Angeles Times. He pointed out the obvious when I lamented sometimes having trouble coming up with ideas for my blog. “We’re dependent on what happens,” he says. I know sometimes I have tons of blog ideas marked in my notebook, and I have to choose between them. But for a long time now I feel like there’s been a dearth. I reach for anything I can grab. Chris Erskine’s column runs in my favorite part of the paper from the whole week, the “Saturday” section. It hasn’t been there for at least the last two weeks. Today he is back, and he tells us about his wife’s cancer diagnosis. The bottom drops out of me as I read. I’ve pictured him on a family vacation, not at the hospital. I don’t want this to be true. I don’t want this to be “what happens,” what emerges in his column. But life turns on a dime. I know that. His wife takes the brunt of some of his humor, enough so that I’ve wondered about their relationship. Today he writes they “are a team again.” I think about their Valentine’s Day, both darkened and brightened by this new life they’re navigating together. I yelled at the phone repairman today. Then I apologized, and he was gracious enough to accept. We ended well. I helped him tape a small piece of aventurine to his bluetooth device for protection. (It gives him headaches.) It wasn’t navigating a cancer diagnosis, not something that changes your bedrock, quakes your world. But we made our way through a rough spot together, two strangers, and we ended up feeling good about each other. It’s something to celebrate, I think, each small victory. I’ll send a card to “my” columnist, too. And I’ll wish for him and his wife Posh to find all those little moments every day to cherish, to draw close in. And for you, too. May we all treasure every little bit of time we can remember to treasure as our year comes round again to the day of love.
I was thinking yesterday about Cinco de Mayo and how our country managed to use this relatively unimportant date in Mexican history to celebrate Mexican culture instead of choosing to honor a date that holds deeper meaning in Mexico, like el 16 de septiembre. It makes me sad, and it makes me embarrassed to be an estadounidense (someone from the United States). I have long been embarrassed by our reputation traveling abroad, for being demanding, arrogant, condescending, for expecting all our whims to be met and met instantly, for believing people in other countries should put aside their local traditions and customs in order to cater to and accommodate us. I was mortified when we elected Bush—twice!—and appalled when he refused to even pause when millions of people all over the world took to the streets to protest attacking Iraq. There may not be an adjective for what I feel now knowing Trump is the presumptive Republican candidate for president. When this started we were all so sure he’d be disregarded, dismissed. How could anyone take him seriously?
Now I am baffled and angry to see so many people voting for him. How can people ignore the malice and racism he’s so steeped in? I’m hideously ashamed of our country in the eyes the world, our dark, decaying underbelly exposed, maggots everywhere. I cling to one comfort that has come to me in recent times. I may be ashamed to be an estadounidense, but I am glad to be a Californian. I’m proud of the way our state has separated itself from the anti-immigrant stance. I’m not saying we don’t have more work to do, but at least we’re moving in the right direction, granting driver’s licenses, minimizing police cooperation with federal deportation officials, changing Medi-Cal laws to provide healthcare for the children of undocumented immigrants, raising the minimum wage. So, today I reach for solace in this gift, that I belong to a state who is trying to change things for the better. And I pray Trump will be defeated by an overwhelming and embarrassing margin. I pray come election day we’ll see evidence the true majority of people in this country understand what he espouses is wrong-hearted and vindictive, that at the end of this messy, ugly, humiliating spectacle the people of this country will do the right thing.
[Editor’s note: I don’t mean to imply here the United States doesn’t have much more egregious sins than these when it comes to our participation in the world or at home. This known catalog is endless and disturbing to say the least.]
It isn’t fair. I try reading other books about writing from my odd “moving to Mexico” collection. But how can any book follow Natalie Goldberg’s? I give it almost two weeks, plodding through the pages, duty and stubbornness combined, hope dwindling. I give up, return to the Ray Bradbury. I’d only read it once years ago, but already, in the first chapter, it makes me cry. It seems unbelievable how lucky I am, to have these two writers who talk about the writing process, who both move me to tears. But it’s a mystery. The other three books don’t touch me, not even Annie Dillard’s whose prose is so lush. So I wonder what it is. Is it like acting? Does the actor need to feel the emotion he’s portraying in order to affect the audience? Is the emotion of the writer able to move into us when we read their work? Is there some mix of mind, heart, body, spirit, the writer’s integrated presence, that hugs their words? Are our words infused, like magic, with how or who we were when we wrote them? Are we transported by a writer who takes us to a world of their own making because the writer was wholly planted there when the words flowed through them, feet buried in the earth? I think so. And I love the idea that our own energy might travel unseen with our writing, ghosts on a night train, lighting people up all over the planet. No wonder libraries are sacred. Holy houses, resonant with this collected energy, like centuries-old cathedrals, dust swirling in the air, caught by the late afternoon sunlight, the smell of old paper, the feel of warm wood beneath your palm, like a prayer.
It’s crazy hot. I’m dripping with sweat but reluctant to go inside. I’ve become attached to reading Natalie Goldberg and doing my “morning writing” on the patio, even on days when morning becomes late afternoon. Today she talks about being lonely, how Katagiri Roshi says we must stand up in it, not let ourselves be “tossed away.” I think of Bernardo. I saw him on the creek path last week. He told me how lonely he is, how women won’t engage with him because he is not wealthy, because he is short. I talked about how we often don’t get things we are too attached to wanting. It’s the way the universe works. I used my writing contests as an example, how I may be too attached to wanting to win. But my heart went out to him. Today my horoscope says that empathy is underrated but much needed, great for actors, parents. Teachers? Writers, too. But it isn’t always an easy gift. Empathy hurts. I know deep loneliness. Maybe without knowing I learned to stand up in it. I made my peace with it. Bernardo hasn’t, I don’t think. He’s hoping someone will come along to make it go away. It’s why I’ve always felt uncomfortable in our exchanges even though I like him and enjoy our talks. I sensed this, a kind of energetic grasping. Of course, there’s a hunger for connection, for physical closeness, too. It’s different from loneliness but a close cousin, all fruit of feeling alone in the world. Feeling connected to the planet helps. I miss walking every day for that, for the big picture connection. But even here in the courtyard I have my mountains, our palo verde, the birds, the moon, the wind that picks up now as I write, wanting to be included on my list. I feel lonely, yes, but not like years ago. Bernardo’s is a deep ache. I ache for him, for all of us, stumbling along being in bodies, saddled with the illusion we are all alone and separate, our odd human condition. We fumble, tumble into each other, mudballs all—stars inside us.
Last week I had an aha moment. It dawned on me the challenges I’ve been having with my work are the universe’s way of helping me. So, my aha, my belated realization, was also a “Duh!” moment. I knew this, right? I’ve known this for years, haven’t I? I pray for help often, but I never ask for trials. I don’t say, “Please send me some really hard thing so I can learn and grow.” I ask for help—in healing, in changing—as though the powers that be might reach down, brush me with a stroke of feathers. Voilà. I am a new person. I forget I am required to do my share. I forget that healing, that changing, can be hard work. I’ve asked for help, for guidance in getting through a troubled time. And I never doubt I am receiving that help. But somehow I missed the whole part about how these challenges at work are the help. I forgot I asked for this. The trouble I am having is the answer to prayer. “Duh,” I say out loud. Sable’s ear twitches at the sound of my voice. His expression remains deadpan. And here I thought you were smarter than that, he thinks at me. “Duh,” I say again just for fun. But I am smiling now.
I asked the woman who was doing a reading for me about her gift. I didn’t think she was clairvoyant, someone who sees things about us. She told me she’s clairaudient. I looked it up later in the dictionary:
But in the moment I asked her if what she heard was actually audible. “Do you hear it with your ears?” She said she wasn’t sure. She was just so used to it, I think. She’s been doing this for over fifty years.
“I just hear a voice,” she said. And she told me we are in a key time for the ability to change. It seems between the winter solstice on December 21st and the summer solstice in June, we have a chance to truly change, to “flip the switch” she said, “once and for all.”
It’s good news–of course it is. But because of who I am the first thing I did was worry I might not succeed in spite of this rare chance. “Are you saying,” I asked her, “that if we don’t manage to change now we may not be able to later?” She said no, but it would be much, much harder.
She talked about how the universe is set to support us now. I balked, the disgruntled child, still stuck on worrying about failing. I told her it seemed to me the universe always supported us. “Not like this,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” During this window the universe is poised to support us like nobody’s business.
So. I wanted to be sure to pass this on. It feels big to me, capital B big, as though we might each step into who we want to be more fully than ever before. Happy new year, everyone.